A ten-point manifesto for sustainability leadership development: #1

I’ve recently published a number of articles about sustainability leadership. Most of them have been critical of current approaches. They share my opinion that many sustainability leadership development programmes are a part of the problems they should be trying to solve.

Eventually, my sniping from the sidelines drew some attention! Several people asked what my version of sustainability leadership development looks like, if all these others are such a problem? Step out of the grandstand and onto the pitch! And rightly so.

This manifesto is published over two articles. It describes what I believe are ten essential elements of truly effective sustainability leadership development programmes.

This is the first article which explores points one to five. Read the second article here ...

ONE: Embodiment

An extremely effective way of encouraging people to live sustainably is to help them understand that they themselves are part of nature. This is very difficult to do just by thinking. We need to experience it. In our bodies.

It is easiest to experience that you are part of nature by being in a place where nature is in control. Where it is undomesticated, uncultivated, self-willed, wild, raw, complete, unmediated. And getting you wet. Or cold. Or warm by the fire. Or revealing such extreme beauty that you are compelled to cry. Or shout out. Or hug someone.

Embodiment refers to the tangible form of an idea. An idea becomes embodied when it becomes part of your physical body. When you ‘understand’ it beyond abstraction, logic, reason, culture or convention. As Indigenous Australians describe it, the idea “goes in”. In French, the word for embodiment is ‘encarne’ the latin root means “of meat”.

The idea that we are part of nature and that we need to live accordingly only becomes real, meaningful and compelling - only goes in - when it becomes us, literally. When it becomes more than just an idea. When it enters our meat to become reflex and instinct. Think muscle memory (or better still, experience it)!

Sustainability leadership development should include physical, sensory, embodied outdoor experiences of wild nature.

TWO: Complexity

Nature is the most complex system on planet Earth. In fact, it is planet Earth.

If you want to lead change in complex ecological systems - and in the social and organisational system which they contain - then you need to know how those systems work.

Sustainability leadership development should include ecological literacy and systems thinking. Leaders should understand and be able to work with complexity.

THREE: Adventure

The challenges we all face with the onslaught of global warming, biodiversity loss, nitrogen pollution, plastic waste and zoonotic viral spread, just for example, are novel.

They are new. We have no precedents. We have never experience these things before. We have never had to respond to them before. Especially not in a lethal cocktail.

Adventure includes ‘an activity the outcomes of which are uncertain’. Being in the wilderness is an adventure. Preparing for an unknowable future is also an adventure. Both can include physical, intellectual, emotional and spiritual challenges. Both can include fear, pain, loss, failure, success and ecstasy. However, being in the wilderness is possible now, being in the future is not. Outdoor adventure provides the perfect context to prepare to navigate the unknown.

Sustainability leadership development should have adventure at it’s heart. Real adventure, visceral, in real-world situations, with a real sense of risk. It must involve experiences with unpredictable and uncertain outcomes. Of course, expertly facilitated by professionals who know how to work safely in such fluid environments.

FOUR: Psychology

Sustainability leaders need to understand and be able to work with psychological processes like, for example projection, identification, transference, cognitive dissonance, confirmation bias and transactions. They also need to have explored what the self is (or isn’t) and how it relates to the world (or doesn’t).

Leaders need to be able to make psychological processes conscious to themselves and to the people they work with. They must have the capacity and experience to hold them as they emerge - in all their sometimes terrifying beauty. This must be done ethically, professionally and with deep humility. Most of all it must be done safely.

Sustainability leadership development should include psychological theory and practical techniques.

FIVE: Strategy

Social psychology suggests that there are three realms in which change must happen simultaneously for it to have a meaningful impact on society. These are personal (psychological); cultural (narrative) and; structural (policy, legislation, etc.).

If you do a quick audit of the sustainability leadership development programmes you’re aware of, I bet most focus on two of these realms at best. Common parings are cultural and structural - and personal and cultural. Mostly the focus is on just one.

Sustainability leadership development should work in personal, cultural and structural realms simultaneously.


This article is the first of two. Read the second article here ...

A manifesto for sustainability leadership development


  1. David Key4th November 2020

    Thanks for your comment Jan. I totally agree. It is a highly contested and misleading term. I think it has been consistently mis-used since Claire Short, the UK’s Secretary of State for International Development, deliberately reformed the word to mean sustainable *economic* development in 1992. Thus providing a nonsensical basis for conventional economic growth to be the route to ‘sustainability’!

    But my clients still use the word. And it is still the word used most commonly in mainstream culture. For example, companies and public departments still use it to describe their employees, strategic goals and programmes.

    In my academic and peer community I never use the word. I tend toward the phrase ‘living within the Earth’s limits’, rather than living ‘sustainably’. But I want my writing to be accessible and effective and so I have chosen to use words with common meanings and understandings. However inaccurate and some-what counter-productive in the long-term.

    What words or terms do you use for this meaning?

  2. Jan de groot4th November 2020

    Hi, thanks for sharing. All good points but I would offer to cut out the word sustainability. It is outdated and holding us back from progressing into an integrated and holistic approach. It is de facto a defense mechanism of incumbent forces.


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